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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; No CIA Briefing to Senate on Journalist's Murder; President Trump Not Ruling Out Pardon For Paul Manafort. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired November 28, 2018 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: As Robert Mueller's investigation moves into overdrive, today, a bipartisan group of senators tried to force a vote on a bill that would protect the special counsel investigation. The measure, however, was blocked.
But this all does come as President Trump told "The New York Post" today that pardoning his former campaign chair Paul Manafort is on the table.
Manafort's plea agreement was tossed out this week by the special counsel after he was accused of lying to federal prosecutors.
Joining me now is discuss this and much more is the outgoing Republican Senator from Arizona Jeff Flake.
Senator Flake, thanks for being here, as always.
First, I want to get your reaction to President Trump saying that a Manafort pardon is not off the table.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Well, that's par for the course, I guess. Just to hold that and dangle it out there is what the president is kind of doing on this investigation.
I just can't for the life of me understand why more of us here in the Senate aren't concerned about this investigation. The attorney general was fired, and somebody is brought in that is hostile to the Mueller probe.
But I think that we ought to be much more concerned than we are right now.
TAPPER: The president -- I mean, Mueller right now is pressuring Manafort. He's trying to get him to cooperate, trying to get him to tell the truth, in his view.
In the midst of that, the president dangles this pardon, which could be interpreted as him signaling to Manafort, just hang in there, buddy, because you don't have to worry about it, you don't have to cooperate.
Does this rise to obstruction of justice, in your view?
FLAKE: Well, I will leave that to others, the lawyers and Mueller's own probe.
But it is a concern now that you have an acting attorney general that has some authority or has oversight for this investigation. And for Mueller to take additional action, supposedly, he would have to get permission or to check in with somebody that has been basically placed in that position by the president.
That's why I do think that we ought to be more concerned than we have shown here in the Senate.
TAPPER: What do you think Matt Whitaker, the acting attorney general, who has not been confirmed by the Senate, but can serve I think up to 210 days through this recess appointment, what do you think he will do? What are you afraid he's going to do when it comes to Mueller?
FLAKE: Well, the statements that he's made when some would argue he was auditioning for the job on television a while ago is say that the special prosecutor, special counsel could be starved basically of funding.
So, I mean, when you take statements like that, you have to assume that -- and the fact that the president actually took the oversight of this investigation from the deputy attorney general, where it belonged, and gave it to the acting attorney general, who has not been confirmed by the Senate, is concerning.
And that's why I felt compelled to go to the floor again and again to ask to bring this bill that we passed out of the Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan basis to protect the special counsel.
That legislation would prohibit somebody who has not been confirmed by the Senate from making decisions like this.
TAPPER: Your bill to protect Mueller was blocked today by your fellow Republican Mike Lee of Utah.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill is a -- quote -- "solution in search of a problem." The president again in an interview with "The Washington Post" yesterday say it's been nearly two years, he hasn't fired Mueller and has no plans to do so.
Obviously, you feel this bill is necessary. But you're not being joined by any other Republicans in this effort to force a vote on the Mueller protection bill.
Last time we spoke, you told me you don't understand how your colleagues, Ben Sasse, Bob Corker, Susan Collins, who support this investigation, won't join your effort. Have you spoken to them? What's their explanation?
FLAKE: Well, I know they will support when it gets to the floor. But I would hope that more would be supportive of forcing the measure on the floor.
TAPPER: But why aren't they?
FLAKE: You know, I will leave that to them. But I don't think that we ought to be sanguine about what is happening there.
The president doesn't have to fire Mueller to affect the investigation. Just putting somebody in charge, having oversight of the investigation at the Department of Justice, as Whitaker now has, this kind of oversight, can affect this investigation. It can affect the report that is ultimately issued to Congress.
So that, we ought to be concerned about. So, you know, when this bill was passed eight months ago, the majority leader and others said, you know, hey, nobody is being fired. The attorney general is not being fired, certainly not Mueller.
Well, the attorney general now has been fired, and somebody has been placed, like I said, with hostility toward the Mueller probe. We ought to be more concerned here. And I just can't understand why we aren't. So I'm going to keep pushing.
I do have some leverage with regard to judges. I voted against one just now. They had to bring the vice president in to put him over the top on a cloture vote. But that vote is still not assured tomorrow. I will also vote in committee when they bring up more than a dozen judges.
I will vote no on each one. And those won't be able to move to the floor until we have this vote taken on the Senate floor.
TAPPER: Well, I understand why you're emphatic and passionate about this. Your colleagues are not joining you.
And I know you say you're not going to speak for them. They should speak for themselves. But help us understand, because to a lot of Americans watching this play out right in front of the cameras, you know, Sessions is fired, Whitaker is put in there, he's on the record bashing the Mueller investigation.
The pardon is dangled. It's all playing -- there's nothing secret here. It's all playing out right in front of us.
TAPPER: What do you think the reason is that Republicans are not as passionate about this as you are?
FLAKE: You know, like I said, I don't understand it.
The majority leader has said he's been assured over and over again by the president -- and the president has said publicly that he has no desire to fire Mueller and he welcomes this investigation, and he's cooperating.
But every day, he tweets. I think he tweeted three or four times today ridiculing Bob Mueller, accusing him of, you know, being in charge of 12 angry Democrats, all kinds of falsehoods, frankly, about this investigation.
So I don't understand why my colleagues aren't more energized about it, and why we aren't doing more to protect the special counsel. We have separation of powers for a reason here. And we have got to provide a check.
And when there is a special counsel investigating the president's campaign that needs to move forward and complete, we ought to allow that to happen. And just to stand by, when the attorney general has been fired and we have an acting attorney general that has made statements that are very hostile to the probe, then we ought to be more concerned.
TAPPER: Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, thanks so much for your time, sir.
FLAKE: Thank you.
TAPPER: Deny, deflect and reject? What Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate that has Senator Lindsey Graham so upset.
TAPPER: We're back with our world lead.
And now two Trump Cabinet officials shading the conclusions of the CIA -- that according to sources. The intelligence agency assessed with high confidence that the Saudi crown prince directed the murder of "Washington Post" journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was no direct reporting of that fact. And Secretary of Defense James Mattis said there was no -- quote -- "smoking gun."
Now, we should point out that neither of those statements actually disputes the CIA assessment though they do provide some cover for the President's desire to not act against the Crown Prince for various geopolitical reasons. CNN's Alex Marquardt joins me now. And Alex, we now have the President and two of his senior most national security advisers basically making the case that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important to destabilize, even as many in the Senate are still pushing them to punish the Saudi Crown Prince.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake. A big day in the Senate. They were echoing the -- Mattis and Pompeo echoing there the President's line of maybe he did, maybe he didn't in reference to Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The two secretaries made those comments after appearing on the Hill today where they briefed senators on the Saudi war that's been going on in Yemen, but there was one glaring absence. The person who perhaps knows more about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi than any other American, and that's the Director of the CIA. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
MARQUARDT: A defiant and determined Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill today.
MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE, UNITED STATES: We talked about U.S. policy in Yemen and U.S. policy with respect to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
MARQUARDT: After giving a briefing to Senators, making the argument, Congress should not take action to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led fight in Yemen, following the killing of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi and giving the Saudi Crown Prince, known as MBS, a pass.
POMPEO: There is no direct reporting connecting the Crown Prince to the ordered murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
MARQUARDT: Pompeo, who's a former CIA director himself, disagreeing with the CIA's assessment that MBS ordered the killing as did Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who joined Pompeo on the Hill.
JAMES MATTIS, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, UNITED STATE: We have no smoking gun that the Crown Prince was involved.
MARQUARDT: The comments following Pompeo's strongly worded and controversial op-ed in the Wall Street Journal where he argued that Saudi Arabia's strategic importance trumps the brutal murder of Khashoggi dismissing what he called the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on, adding that degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S.
SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think 80 percent of the people left the hearing this morning not feeling like an appropriate response has been forthcoming.
MARQUARDT: There was widespread disappointment and condemnation across the aisle of the briefing by Pompeo and Mattis, where CIA director Gina Haspel was a no-show. Asked why, Pompeo replied simply --
POMPEO: I was asked to be here and here I am.
MARQUARDT: Not good enough for many senators.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I am not going to be denied the ability to be briefed by the CIA that we have oversight of. Any key vote -- anything that you need me for to get out of town, I am not doing it until we hear from the CIA.
SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: We were told in the briefing it was at the direction of the White House she not attend.
MARQUARDT: A White House that also disagrees with the Intelligence Community's conclusion that in all likelihood MBS was behind Khashoggi's murder. Trump telling the Washington Post that MBS denies it and the CIA isn't sure. I'm not saying they're saying he didn't do it, the President said, but they didn't say it affirmatively.
MARQUARDT: And Jake, the CIA has responded to those allegations from those senators that the White House told director Haspel not attend today. The CIA is saying that they had already briefed the Senate's committee and that "the notion that anyone told Director Haspel not to attend today's briefing is false. Jake?
TAPPER: All right, Alex Marquardt, thank you so much. And we should point out, there was just in the last hour some action when it comes to Saudi Arabia. There's a threat from some senators to vote to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. A resolution just advanced out of committee. Right now the U.S., U.K., and other nations all back this Saudi-led coalition in the fight against Houthi rebels. The U.S. sell the Saudis weapons, provides intelligence support. The senators who have spoken to CNN seem to believe this is the best way to punish Saudi Arabia.
So I think, Kirsten, it's fair to say that even if the President and his administration is not going to punish the Crown Prince in any way, there will be repercussions maybe when it comes to the U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, there's a lot of frustration even with Republicans in this. I think the only other time I can think of this happening since Trump was President was with the Russia sanctions that they didn't want to have them post and they went ahead with that anyway and then he was under tremendous pressure to not veto it. He has said if this advances, this resolution, he would veto it. But who knows? Maybe people could get to him and convince him that something needs to be done in terms of punishing Saudi Arabia.
Right now, he's obviously trying to have it kind of both ways, of saying, well, you know, something happened here, but it's probably not them and we have such a great relationship with them, that he doesn't really want to do anything but Republicans don't seem to be on board with that approach.
[16:50:11] AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would say here's where the conflict is. People in the Administration, Secretary Pompeo does think have a good view on this. They want to say what's happening Saudi Arabia, we can't do anything because we have strategic and economic interests there. I think most people recognize that
But to not interpret the murder of this journalist as an attack on U.S. interest is wrong because they want to make it seem like oh, he's just a Saudi dissident, we don't have to pay attention to him. No. He was a writer for The Washington Post living in the United States which has citizen children.
TAPPER: Living in Virginia. Yes.
CARPENTER: And to not view at this -- we haven't explored the question about why he was targeted. His Washington Post editors have said that the kingdom was irritated with the critiques he was writing in the Western press. This is an attack on free speech. And the fact that no one in the administration even takes a minute to consider that causes a lot of concerns.
SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think furthermore -- added to that I also think, you know, the argument that Secretary Pompeo made in The Wall Street Journal has I bet was also that they had the stability in the region. And I think that Mohammad bin Salman, the crown -- the Saudi Crown Prince has been on a quiet rampage if you will. And I think the killing of The Washington Post journalist is something that took the scales for many people. How stable can you know, Saudi Arabia, be for the region if these are the types of things that the Crown Prince is engaging in?
And furthermore, when it comes to the war in Yemen, look, I think that there -- earlier this week, five humanitarian groups came together, put out a statement that said, if the United States does not do something, basically what's happening in Yemen is on their hands. Over 14 million people have starved, 85,000 children under the age of five --
CARPENTER: That discussion is long overdue.
SANDERS: It is long overdue. It is time we do something. So I'm happy to see this coming --
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So look, the war -- as Secretary Pompeo said before, it's a really, really tough neighborhood and lots of ugly things get done. The war in Yemen, the -- what Symone has talks about, the starvation, this humanitarian crisis, it needs to be -- needs to be repaired, could have been averted, but let's not forget, this is a proxy war being fought by the Iranian government by the IRGC against the West, right? This is -- this is why this war is being waged. This is why the U.S. and the West is supporting it.
And so I would say that this is a first step on the hill but let's see what happens in the Senate if they're actually going to go through with it because you know, we're -- you're -- in one hand, you know, you're slapping the Saudis but you're rewarding the Iranians at the same time.
TAPPER: So -- we'll, speaking of the Senate, one of the biggest complaints we heard from Senators after the briefing was about the absence of CIA Director Gina Haspel because her agency was the one investigating the murder of Khashoggi. Lindsey Graham, a big supporter President Trump said he's not voting on anything until they get a briefing from the CIA Director. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GRAHAM: I'm glad we had it. I admire both secretaries but it was inadequate because the CIA was not there. Any key vote, anything that you need me for to get out of town I'm not doing it until we hear from the CIA.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Have you made that clear to the President?
GRAHAM: I just did.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: I mean, just now he said that he's "pissed" and that's why he switched his vote on Yemen because he's mad at the Trump administration about this.
POWERS: Right. Well, I also think Gina Haspel should be mad frankly because she's the one who knows the real answer to this and they're basically sidelining her so other people can put out a political story you know, where you have Secretary Mattis saying, well, there was no smoking gun. Well, what does that mean I mean? So you have to have like --
TAPPER: Because there was a bone saw.
POWERS: Right. Well, right, but also because we're -- they are videotaping it while it was happening. I mean, it's pretty obvious -- you know, it's pretty clear at least by all reports that the CIA believes you know --
TAPPER: Yes, they have high confidence --
POWERS: Yes, high confidence in who did this.
TAPPER: That the Crown Prince direct it.
POWERS: Yes, and so they're sidelining her so that they can push out this kind of bogus story.
TAPPER: Yes. And the idea -- look, Mattis and Secretary of State Pompeo, they have their interests right, defense relationships, diplomatic relationships, but Gina Haspel is the one that will say what actually happened.
CARPENTER: Sure. And I think this is a good way for senators to get the administration's attention to force that to happen. I don't know how they can't get answers from her. The White House can't withhold her and keep her in hiding forever.
URBAN: And I would just say this. I would say that you know -- I would say that don't forget there's a huge collection station. Whoever the station chief in Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, it's a very important post for CIA as well.
TAPPER: Absolutely. Thanks one and all. They weren't his family or friends. In fact, they didn't even know him. But that didn't stop more than 400 people from showing up to one man's funeral. We'll tell you the story next.
[16:55:00] TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD," a story that might restore your faith in humanity if perhaps these days you find it a bit lacking. Earlier this week, in an obituary for a Vietnam veteran posted in the Omaha World-Herald Newspaper, the funeral home said that Stanley Stoltz had no known family and invited the public to attend his service at the cemetery. That notice went viral and more than 400 Americans braved freezing cold temperatures pay their respects to a man most of them never even met. Hundreds touched by his service wanting to make sure he wasn't laid to rest alone and a final act of thanks.
After the notice posted, one of Stoltz's brothers was located and he was able to attend the service as well. The flag on his casket will be flown every Memorial Day at Omaha National Cemetery. May his memory be a blessing. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.